Don't Blame Fish for California's Water Shortage

Balancing resource use is really hard in a drought.

Whose water is it anyway?

Photographer: Manny Crisosotomo/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Getty Images

Since the late 1980s, new law after regulation after court ruling after endangered species designation has cut into the amount of water that farmers in California’s Central Valley are allowed to take out of its rivers and aqueducts. Here, for example, is how the flows from the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River watersheds (which cover most but not all of the Central Valley) were divvied up during the last average water year, 2010.

average year

“Regulatory outflow” is the figure to look at here -- in 2010 it amounted to 2.3 million acre-feet of water that was allowed to flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the San Francisco Bay and eventually out under the Golden Gate Bridge to satisfy one of a number of environmental laws, regulations and agreements. “Total delta exports” was the 4.7 million acre-feet of water pumped from the delta, mostly to cities in Southern California and farms in the Tulare Basin -- which is home to the nation’s three leading farm counties (ranked by agricultural sales) and is colloquially known as the southern San Joaquin Valley although it doesn’t actually feed into the San Joaquin River or drain out to sea.

During a normal year, then, all those new environmental restrictions really do add up. The 2011 water year was even wetter than normal -- with 4.2 million acre-feet of water allocated to regulatory outflow. Since then, though, it’s been drier than normal, this year and last.

The drought has been painful, and California farmers and sympathetic politicians have been complaining that environmental regulations make it much worse. I’ve written before that most of what agricultural interests point to as environmental use of water consists of flows down three mostly free-running Northern California coastal rivers that are separated from the Central Valley by mountain ranges -- and thus not readily available for valley farmers in any case. As for the water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, here’s how the State Water Resources Control Board expects things to shake out in the current water year:

drought year

Salinity control, at 2.9 million acre-feet, is about keeping San Francisco Bay salt water from creeping into the delta and, among other things, infiltrating the giant pumps that send water south. Uncapturable outflow, 2.3 million acre-feet, is water that gushes down the rivers after winter storms at greater volume than the delta pumps and other parts of the state water infrastructure can handle. In both cases this is water that (a) flows out to the ocean and (b) is enjoyed along the way by fish and other aquatic organisms, but it is not the result of environmental regulation.

Water outflows mandated to protect the environment are expected this year to add up to only 264,000 acre-feet. This is because the environmental restrictions take overall water flows into account, and also because the State Water Resources Control Board has approved several Temporary Urgency Change Petitions that together have increased delta exports by about 400,000 acre-feet.

That isn’t the whole story -- less surface water for farming regions in wet years means fewer opportunities to recharge groundwater aquifers, and mandated water releases for fish in those years mean reservoirs might not be as full as they would otherwise be. Also, as Tulare Basin farmer and conservative pundit Victor Davis Hanson has written again and again and again, if environmental and fiscal concerns hadn’t put an end to the state’s decades-long dam-and-aqueduct-building campaign in the 1970s, there would presumably be more ability to store water and transport it to where it’s needed.

Still, the notion that state and federal officials are diverting huge quantities of water for fish in the midst of a drought is fantasy. And California’s shift in recent decades from what historian Norris Hundley Jr. dubbed “Hydraulic Society” to a more complex balancing of environmental and economic considerations seems in retrospect not only inevitable but healthy. It’s just that getting the balance right is really hard, especially in the fourth year of a drought.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.